What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?

A beer or a glass of wine is a common way many Americans choose to wind down at the end of a day. How much is too much? How do you know when you've crossed the line to alcohol use disorder (AUD)?

Drinking “in moderation” means having no more than one drink a day if you're a woman, and no more than two if you're a man. One drink equals:

  • 1.5 ounces of liquor (like whisky, rum, or tequila)
  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 12 ounces of beer

Another way to look at your drinking habits is to think about how much you have during an average week. For women, "heavy" or "at risk" drinking means more than seven drinks per week, or more than three in any day. For men, it's more than 14 drinks in a week, or more than four in a day.

Alcohol Use Disorder

Risky drinking may be a sign of a medical condition called alcohol use disorder. It's a chronic disease that affects your brain. An estimated 16 million people -- adults and adolescents -- in the U.S. have it. Sometimes genes passed down to you from your parents can put you at risk. Your environment or psychological makeup also play a role.

There are many signs that someone may have AUD. Some of the signals include:

  • An uncontrollable urge to drink
  • Lack of control over how much you drink
  • Negative thoughts when you're not drinking alcohol
  • Drinking in risky situations
  • Drinking that interferes with fulfilling obligations
  • Continuing to drink even though it causes problems or makes them worsen
  • Stopping or doing less of important activities because of alcohol

There are mild, moderate, and severe forms of AUD, which depend on how many symptoms you have. You're more likely to have AUD if one or more of the following is true:

  • You can't relax or fall asleep without drinking.
  • You need a drink in the morning to get going.
  • To be social, you have to drink.
  • Alcohol serves as your escape from feelings.
  • After drinking, you drive.
  • You mix alcohol and medications.
  • You drink when you're pregnant or caring for small children.
  • When loved ones ask how much you drink, you don't tell the truth.
  • You hurt people or become angry when you drink.
  • It's tough for you to remember what you did when you were drinking.
  • Your responsibilities suffer because of your drinking.
  • Drinking has caused you legal problems.
  • You tried to stop drinking but failed.
  • You can't stop thinking about drinking.
  • To feel the effects of alcohol, you have to drink more and more.
  • You have withdrawal symptoms after you stop drinking for too long, like shakiness, nausea, trouble sleeping, or seizures.

The more of these that describe you, the more severe your AUD is likely to be.

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Effects of AUD

Even if your case is mild, it can have a serious impact on your physical and mental health. Often, AUD causes other problems that you try to avoid by drinking. That creates a negative cycle.

In the short term, AUD can cause:

  • Memory loss
  • Hangovers
  • Blackouts

Long-term effects include:

  • Stomach problems
  • Heart problems
  • Cancer
  • Brain damage
  • Permanent memory loss
  • Pancreatitis
  • High blood pressure
  • Cirrhosis, or scarring on your liver

You're also more likely to take dangerous risks. That raises your chances of being injured or dying from:

  • Car accidents
  • Homicide
  • Suicide
  • Drowning

AUD affects those around you, too. Your drinking may damage relationships with loved ones because of anger problems, violence, neglect, and abuse. Women who are pregnant risk having a miscarriage. Their baby is more likely to have fetal alcohol syndrome and a higher chance of dying from SIDS.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on July 19, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

Mayo Clinic: “Nutrition and healthy eating: Alcohol: If you drink, keep it moderate.”

American Psychological Association: “Understanding alcohol use disorders and their treatment.”

American Family Physician: “Alcohol Abuse: How to Recognize Problem Drinking.”

National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: “Alcohol Use Disorder,” “Alcohol Use Disorder: A Comparison Between DSM–IV and DSM–5.”

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies: “Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse.”

CDC: “Alcohol and Public Health.”

American Academy of Family Physicians: “Alcohol Abuse.”

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